East 4th Street Cultural District Serves as Intermediary for Creative Ecology of Lower Manhattan
By: Julia Lipscomb
Lower Manhattan, an area that comprises both the East Village and Lower East Side (LES), is a creative neighborhood with a divided history; an area with the multimillion-dollar real estate developments constructed in the past ten years nestled amongst brick row homes dating back to the Nineteenth Century. Culturally, the area illustrates many different shifts of populations from working-class immigrant families, to the crime-riddled Skid Row of Bowery in the early 2000s, to local artists and art groups, and eventually to the commercial wealth the neighborhood exhibits today.
Fourth Arts Block (FAB) is a nonprofit organization that is home to more than a dozen arts groups, 10 cultural facilities and 17 performance and rehearsal venues. FAB was founded in 2001 by cultural and community groups seeking to establish and advance the East 4th Street Cultural District, between 2nd Avenue and Bowery. It is the only cultural district in Manhattan and one of only two in New York City (the other being Downtown Brooklyn Cultural District). The current residents and organizations of East 4th Street reflect the history and diversity of the street itself. According to Executive Director Tamara Greenfield, the founding of FAB “took about 5-6 years of mobilizing different people from the neighborhood.”
Getting a diverse group of stakeholders to collaborate in decision-making processes is a difficult endeavor. FAB, however, proudly serves the community as an intermediary for the benefit of arts and cultural advancement in the community.
“We’re increasingly seeing the idea of an intermediary as a valuable thing,” explains Greenfield. “[FAB] can be useful as a connection to outside ideas and resources, like when we operate with a deeper knowledge of the groups that are on the ground. The intermediary role is something that we play a lot, and I think that a lot of arts and cultural groups do who look at themselves as part of a larger community.”
Greenfield sees a Creative City as a community that inspires creativity through a variety of places. “There can be all kinds of spaces that can be used for creative works, whether it’s streets, plazas, parks or walls. Where are those places of connection and engagement? Where are those access points to creativity that’s happening in communities, neighborhoods, and theatres? [Those places] can connect to policymaking and make our cities more creative and capable of tapping into different kinds of stories that bring people together. You can use that creativity to shape what the city can become, instead of keeping it isolated in a room.”
Last summer, Fourth Arts Block and Keith Schweitzer commissioned Ecuadorian artist Raul Ayala to paint a 1,000 square foot mural on the pavement of Extra Place, an alley that is surrounded by condominium developments of Bowery and East 1st Street. The mural, entitled “Adios Amigos,” is a memorial in honor of the late Joey Ramone and Arturo Vega of the Ramones, who used to frequent the alley. The mural illustrates a poem by Dee Dee Ramone written shortly after Joey’s death. In this new context, you can pass by the mural without knowing it was the very same alley behind the famed punk rock music hall CBGB, which closed in 2006 after a 30-year history in rock/new wave music.
“I think there’s a lot of those kinds of opportunities [for public art] that cities can do and I would like to see New York do more of,” continues Greenfield. “We do a lot of it, but there could be even more.”
FAB was one of the arts groups at the forefront of the commercial redevelopment. Like numerous other arts organizations in the area – including ABC No Rio, Anthology Film Archives, Nuyorican Poet’s Café, and PS122 – FAB was part of an incredible network of arts groups that started in spaces in the Lower East Side over 20 years ago at inexpensive rates. In the late 1990s, the city of New York owned several vacant properties on the Lower East Side, until Mayor Giuliani proposed selling the buildings, as gentrification of the neighborhood began. Many arts groups were able to obtain inexpensive rentals on a month-to-month basis, in some cases, for up to 30 years, but felt threatened by Giuliani’s plan to get rid of the publicly owned spaces. Sales continued under Bloomberg who, according to Greenfield, demonstrated, “a much greater interest and willingness to sell properties to long-term residents.”
In just the last 50 years, Lower Manhattan has experienced many political disputes in deciding how to use vacant commercial properties. While the West Village developed more quickly in terms of gentrification, the Lower East Side and East Village were previously at an advantage in that many of the properties were run by arts groups or owned by the city.
“The external threat of losing the buildings was the real CATALYST for the arts groups to mobilize their interest and protect the spaces for future use,” says Greenfield. “The groups got organized, came up with a plan, and made it more politically unsavory to get rid of the buildings than to not hold on to them. And, I think there was a willingness and interest to support arts continuing in communities. It was to keep these art spaces here. Through a lot of hard work, they were able to convince the city to sell to the art groups 8 properties for 8 dollars. Those buildings are protected for nonprofit arts use forever.”